Presence of al-Qaeda Seen among Libya’s Rebels
By William Tucker
Although this doesn’t really come as a surprise to those of us that follow international terrorism it is certainly worth discussing the presence of al-Qaeda in Libya. What sparked this discussion is the recent report from Reuters that quoted several defense and national security officials as saying that “flickers” of al-Qaeda were evident among intelligence on Libya’s rebels. These officials go on to say that the presence is rather small and does not appear to be coordinated directly by al-Qaeda or any of al-Qaeda’s affiliates. Taken together with what is known about the ad-hoc rebel movement in Libya it is hard to find fault with the statements made by these government officials.
The probability that an al-Qaeda presence would be seen among Libya’s rebels was a problem discussed early on in the anti-Qaddafi uprising, and for good reason. During the height of the Iraqi insurgency, U.S. military and intelligence officials went to great pains in discerning the native country of many of the captured foreign fighters in Iraq. The largest presence of foreign fighters per capita were from Libya, while the majority overall came from Algeria. This occurred for several reasons, but chief among them was the al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was waging a losing campaign against Qaddafi. Many of the fighters read the writing on the wall and left the country for other theaters to wage war. Many of those that were unable to leave Libya were either killed in battle or imprisoned. The defection of Noman Benotman, one of LIFG’s leaders, didn’t help matters much either.
In late 2002 to 2003, Colonel Qaddafi shifted Libya’s foreign policy stance as a way of shunning the rogue regime label in favor of returning to the international community. From that time and up until the present uprising, Qaddafi was releasing former LIFG members from prison and attempting to reintegrate them into Libyan society. While this was part of a larger package of political reforms in the country many former militants still had a difficult time finding work. This didn’t necessarily force their return to militancy, but it also didn’t do much to change their minds about Qaddafi’s leadership. Saying this, it doesn’t look as if these former militants are the al-Qaeda types mentioned by the intelligence community.
The only other discernible al-Qaeda presence in North Africa is that of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Some of the former members of LIFG that were not imprisoned, but desired to continue waging jihad found refuge among AQIM in Algeria and the other nations that comprise the Sahel. The number of militants that made this move is difficult to discern, but there have been indications that the movement of militants did indeed take place. If there are any known or suspected members of al-Qaeda participating in the Libyan uprising then it is likely that they are Libyans that moved into AQIM’s camp. Over the past two years AQIM has suffered significant setbacks and its operationally capacity and membership rolls have taken a hit. As a result of the situation with AQIM and the more fertile ground now found in Libya this is probably the best theory as to who these al-Qaeda militants are and where they came from.